Joan de Valence c. 1230 – 1307 was a great heiress with powerful roles to play as wife, mother and head of a princely household. New book tells the story
Joan de Valence
The Life and Influence of a Thirteenth Century Noblewoman.
By Linda E. Mitchell
Palgrave Macmillan 2015
Joan de Valence was a granddaughter of William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke and Isabel de Clare. In spite of a large number of sons no male heirs would be registered in the third generation and in 1240s the enormous wealth of the Marshalls ended up being divided by the descendants of his daughters. This made Joan de Valence a very wealthy heiress and ward of the king, who married her off to his half brother, William de Valence. Her portion included the castle and lordship of Pembroke, an earldom in Wexford in Ireland plus scattered properties – towns, honours, and castles – spread across Wales, England and Ireland.
In the general biographies of Joan of Valence she has been seen through two skewed lenses. First of all, she was married to one of the bêtes noires of Matthew of Paris, William de Valence. Throughout his life William was constantly loyal to his half brother Henry III and later his nephew, Edward I. As such, he was on the king’s side in the Second Barons’ War against the faction of Simon de Montfort, and took part in the final battle at Evesham. Further, she was a woman and thus generally viewed from a misogynistic point of view. Thus, the couple early on received a bad press, which later slipped into the official history writing of the 19th and 20th centuries. While Simon de Montfort and Eleanor of Leicester have received a number of biographies, the valences have not been so fortunate; this, in spite of the fact that their personal history and political roles definitely merit much more attention.
In a fascinating new book Linda E. Mitchell has presented us with at least half of the story, a biography of Joan of Valence. From her we learn about a woman of decisive charm, much wit and not least vast resources, who successfully juggled her roles as wife, mother and lady of the manor(s) in a time wrought with civil war. Later, as a widow, we see her enact the role of magnate deftly weaving a network of politics through alliances with family and friends. It appears, even Edward I was slightly afraid of her political acumen (p. 137).
Of course the book relies heavily on the fact that there exists fragments of the Household roll of Joan de Valence, countess of Pembroke, which details her life in the final months of her marriage and her first year as a widow. Among other things these accounts number the very extensive correspondence, she upheld with a huge number of friends and dependents, while organizing the day-to-day life of the household of a grand lady responsible for her grown-up children and not least grandchildren.
It is through this correspondence we get a glimpse of what it took to get the economy of a great household to work. But we also get a very fine glimpse of her travels at this point in her life, detailing routes, which regularly covered stretches of 30 – 40 km pr. day in rumbling carriage. Impressive for a lady at the age of 70! (There is maps in an appendix)
But Mitchell has also deftly sieved through a vast array of unpublished sources as well as published chronicles, rolls, registers etc. Through this we are presented with a probably complete gazetteer of her many litigations concerning her rights and lands.
Medieval biographies have to balance between micro-history and prosopography, writes Mitchell in the introduction (p. 4) and lists the general scholarly reserves against these two genres. Microhistory works by embedding the person in his or hers culture and may thus end up “depersonalizing” the subject. Prosopographies, on the other hand, may include so many “persons” that sight is also lost. However, medieval biographies are notoriously difficult to write, because so few traces remain of the any person. For instance, we do not know – although we can guess – where Joan of Valence spent her childhood or how she was brought up. Neither do we get more than a couple of glimpses of her relationship with her husband. And we don’t know where she died and was finally buried (although Mitchell does present us with a carefully worked out argument for her death at Goodrich).
We do have to weave, claims Mitchell and proceeds. Does she succeed? In general, the answer must be yes. We are given a deftly woven portrait of a particularly successful woman and what it took to keep it all together in times of war (an exiled husband), sorrow (death of her children) and widowhood (old age). However, the biography definitely leans in the prosopographical direction. The microhistorical approach has to a certain extent to be teased out by the reader.
Reading the book thus left me with a number of questions, answers to which which I had to go “hunting” elsewhere. For instance:
- We learn that she was probably personally active in designing Goodrich Castle, where she obviously felt at home in her old age and we get glimpses of the castle plus some photos taken by the author. A groundplan to make sense of the place has not been included, though. (Some of this probably reflect back to the publisher, though, which apparently is stingy with including photos and diagrams in the text).
- We learn about her Christmas feast in 1296 (p. 204), where herring, salmon, congers, cheese and pottage were served. But in a footnote, we learn, that this was much less sumptuous than that served by Elizabeth de Burgh in 1349 – 50. In what way?
- We can read extensively about the construction of the tomb of her husband and its use of enamelled decoration and that it echoes that of the so-called Valence Casket. But again: in what way?
Perhaps these remarks are unfair. Very often, we get microhistories of the “daily life” of noble ladies from the Middle Ages without any real sense of what it took personally and politically to keep it all together. This is definitely offered here, and we should be thankful that Joan de Valence has been fleshed out as a deeply political person engaged in trying to keep her family afloat. It is just this: more will have more…
A highly recommendable book.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Linda E. Mitchell is the “Martha Jane Phillips Starr/Missouri Distinguished Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies” at the University of Missouri-Kansas City
Writing Medieval Women’s Lives
Ed. by Charlotte Newman Goldy and Amy Livingstone
Palgrave Macmillan 2012
The Great Household in Late Medieval England
C. M. Woolgar
Yale University Press 1999
Godric’s Castle was first erected in 1095 by Godric of Maplestone or Mappestone, who held the manor at the time of Domesday Survey. This first castle was presumably andearth and wooden structure. In the mid-12th century the castle was refitted with a stone keep stone, but it was not until 1220 – 45 the surrounding outer stonewalls and turrets were erected. In 1247 the castle passed on to Joan de Valence as part of her inheritance of the wealth of the Marshalls.
Together with her husband, William de Valence (half brother of Henry III) a major building campaign was initiated in 1280’s. The Valences were building at the same time as his nephew, Edward I, were busy erecting castles in Wales and Goodrich appears to have been built on the same lines and as a concentric castle.
Part of the building campaign was the building of a new solar block with a great chamber meant to be used as a private hall for the household of Joan de Valence and her husband William. The solar was spanned by a roof carried by an imposing arcade copied from a building at Chepstow Castle. Beyond the arcade stood the North-West Tower or Lady’s Tower, containing the bedchambers and withdrawing rooms of the Earl and his family. The westwing held the hall, while the rooms above the solar (in the north-wing) were given over to guests of the family. The chapel next to the gatehouse could be accessed from the courtyard. To the South was the original keep from the 12th century as well as the kitchen range.
The location of the castle on a hill next to the river Wye will have presented a pleasant view taking in the vast forests ideal for hunting. Good working light from the south will have filtered through the courtyard and into the solar.